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Apr
24

It’s Time For Nats To Take Training Wheels Off Joe Ross

Stephen Strasburg is sidelined with shoulder inflammation, Jon Lester has yet to make his debut this season, and Patrick Corbin has not pitched up to his contract so far this year.

Dave Martinez needs someone other than Max Scherzer to pitch late into games and give his team a chance to win.

So why is he so hesitant to give Joe Ross more freedom, instead of treating him like a typical No. 4 or 5 starter?

It’s a tendency Martinez has had throughout his tenure in Washington, and at times, it has been warranted. But not in the case of Ross in 2021.

Joe Ross has looked like a borderline ace starting pitcher three times this season. He should not be absolved of the 10-run outing he had against the Cardinals on Monday, but he’s held his opposition to one run and 11 hits in the other 17 innings he’s thrown. Even his walk rate – which had hovered near five per nine innings in 2019 – has been nearly trimmed in half.

So far this season, he’s pitched between 85–91 pitches three times (he went shorter in his season debut). Keeping in mind that he didn’t play last season, he averaged 86 pitches per start in 2019, never throwing 100 pitches in a game. In fact, he hasn’t reached triple digits since undergoing Tommy John surgery midseason of 2017.

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Jan
27

You (Can't Be Let) Go, Dan Kolko

When it comes to making decisions about broadcast announcers for professional sports teams in the Washington area, it would seem the majority of owners of these teams are absolutely clueless.

They just don’t understand the bond fans end up having with these announcers. They are the voice you heard that told you everything would be all right when the team was going through a tough streak. They are the voices you rejoice with when the team has a huge win.

They are part of the experience, and to many, part of the family when they turn on the television and watch a game. You can't help but notice when the games are on network television, as it just seems strange without the locals. Those national guys don’t know what the local guys know, they act like they’ve discovered the theory of relativity when someone passes on a tidbit of information on the team, and they quickly become annoying.

Despite this bond, Washington owners seem to view them as interchangeable parts that no one will notice. What the Wizards did in jettisoning long-time announcers Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier was awful. Because of their consistent mediocrity, I had lost interest in the Wizards and the NBA, but still watched for years because Buck and Phil were like a comfortable old sweatshirt. They weren’t going to lie to you, but they weren’t going to be blatant homers. They understood the high points and heartbreak of previous season, and sometimes said things just as you were thinking the same.

But then the Wizards decided to make a change for change’s sake. Buck and Phil wanted to be back, but the team went younger and cheaper. My old friends were gone, replaced by two strangers.

I haven’t watched the Wizards since.

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Apr
19

It’s Early, But It's Feeling Like Déjà Vu All Over Again

You may have to get down on your knees and put your ear to the ground to hear it.

But it’s there. A slight, gentle tremor among Washington Nationals fans. A buzz of concern about manager Davey Martinez.

It’s not said aloud because it’s early. Plus he was the manager during the miraculous run to the World Series in 2019. To speak ill of his managing skills would be disrespectful of that.

But it’s there.

Martinez is a loveable guy that everyone would like as a friend and a neighbor. In 2018 he went 82-80, and many of us scratched our heads at times as to how a team that went 97-65 the previous year barely had a winning record with essentially the same amount of talent. The roster changed as it does every year, but you swapped Jayson Werth for Juan Soto, and the team still had Bryce Harper.

Then 2019 came and the same baffling bullpen decisions caused the team to start off 19-31 in the first 50 games. The rumbling about Davey grew louder until the team rallied around him and they somehow made the playoffs. He used starters out of the bullpen at key moments and everyone from superstars to role players came up with timely hits at the right moment. It was one of Washington Sports’ greatest moments as they brought home a World Series.

Last year was an asterisk. The team got off to a slow start, missed the playoffs, and with the COVID pandemic, how could you possibly evaluate the season fairly? If it were a round of golf, it was a mulligan. The 2021 season would be a more reasonable opportunity to tell.

After yesterday’s loss to Arizona, the team is now 5-8. The last two years the team started 19-31. For you math scholars out there, 19 out of 50 is a winning percentage of .38. Winning 5 out of 13 calculates to a winning percentage of .384615. Take that percentage, multiply it times 50 games and round it to the nearest whole number and you get….19-31.

As Yogi Berra once said, it’s looking like Déjà vu all over again.

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Apr
18

Injuries Have Become A Pattern for Nats' Pitching Staff

Since 2019, Dave Martinez’s motto has been “Go 1–0 today.”

The events of this week – and subsequent news this weekend – make a case for the alternative. The Nationals split their most recent four-game series with the Diamondbacks, but that’s of relatively minimal importance right now.

On Saturday, left-handed reliever Luis Avilan was confirmed to have suffered a UCL tear, as a result of back-to-back extended outings on Wednesday and Thursday. Then on Sunday, right-handers Stephen Strasburg (shoulder) and Wander Suero (oblique) were also placed on the 10-day IL.

The Nationals promoted Paolo Espino, who made Strasburg’s previously-scheduled Sunday start, and relievers Kyle McGowin and Ryne Harper to fill those three voids. All three have Major League experience, but none of them are difference makers, nor do they come with much apparent upside.

The Strasburg Situation

I noted in my recap from earlier this week that Strasburg had a rough outing in his last start Tuesday, and that the Nationals took exception to camera shots of the dugout that the Cardinals had access to. However, the team glossed over the fact that Strasburg wasn’t himself physically in that start.

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Apr
17

No Offense, But Nationals Offense Right Now Stinks

Dave Martinez has reached a crossroad.

Most people – myself included – will normally cite his mismanagement of the bullpen when it comes to criticism of the Nats' manager. But his construction of the batting order this season has also seemed rather archaic at times.

Davey doesn’t like to experiment with his lineup unless he has to. The Nationals are 12thin the majors in OPS, but they’re 28th in runs scored per game. If that doesn’t suggest a lineup change is necessary, nothing will.

The old school of thought in baseball was to hit your quickest player leadoff, a good hitter with speed second, your best overall hitter third, the hitter with the most pure power fourth, your next best “RBI guy” fifth, and the rest of your batters in order of ability after that.

Times have changed. There’s data suggesting that the No. 2 hitter across the MLB typically steps up to the plate in the most high-pressure situations, and that the importance of including speed at the top of the lineup is of diminishing importance. That doesn’t even factor in separating same-sided hitters, or who’s most comfortable hitting in each given spot in the lineup.

Davey deserves credit for trying Juan Soto in the No. 2 hole recently. Using Adam Eaton there in the past was often crippling. But there’s still more work to be done.

I’d start at the heart of the lineup. Since Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber’s regular-season debuts – and even during Spring Training – they’ve been hitting directly behind Soto. In some ways, that makes sense, but it’s also not quite ideal. Soto and Schwarber are both left-handed hitters, and Bell is a switch hitter, meaning he’ll normally hit from the left side – since most pitchers are right-handed. Particularly late in games, that gives opposing managers a strategic advantage. If they bring in a left-handed reliever to face them, the production of the trio will become much more limited than they’re otherwise capable of.

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Apr
14

As Meatloaf Once Sang, Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad...

The noted philosopher Meatloaf may have been describing the Nationals and their time in St. Louis this week when he once sang "two out of three ain't bad."

But it wasn't the song that was significant: It was the band, or more accurately said, the band getting back together. 

Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber and Josh Harrison were reinstated from the Injured List (IL) on Monday, and for the first time this season, the Nationals had their entire team available to play. Bell started the first two games upon returning, and his counterparts played all three games in the series. The trio gave the lineup some much-improved length, proving why I believe the team has a strong chance to make the playoffs this year

Here’s a look at the difference the three of them made:

Before: Victor Robles, Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Zimmerman, Starlin Castro, Jordy Mercer, Andrew Stevenson, catcher, pitcher.
Bench Core: Hernan Perez, Luis Garcia, Yadiel Hernandez.

After: Robles, Turner, Soto, Bell, Schwarber, Castro, Harrison, catcher, pitcher.
Bench Core: Zimmerman, Stevenson, Mercer/Perez.

You can’t overstate how much of a boost this is for the lineup. Bell and Schwarber have – at least nearly – elite slugging potential, Castro becomes similar to Ian Desmond or a young Anthony Rendon in the No. 6 slot, and Harrison batting seventh – not to mention a catcher like Yan Gomes eighth – is an immeasurable luxury.

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Apr
11

Nationals Experience A Lost Weekend In Los Angeles

California Dreaming, it was not. 

Hoping to end their ever-growing losing streak on the West Coast, the Nationals thought they might take advantage of the Dodgers being without All Star outfielders Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger this weekend, but it didn’t matter much.

The West Coast super-team and defending World Series champions used late-game heroics to take the series opener 1-0, cruised to an 8-5 win on Saturday that was decided earlier than the score indicates, and closed out the set with a 3-0 victory in Sunday’s finale.

Considering how poorly the season has started, including a current streak of five consecutive losses, it seems like a good time to look into some patterns: What’s gone right for the Nats, what’s gone wrong, and how can Dave Martinez blend it all together to create a winning on-field product?

Game One

Joe Ross started Friday’s game, opposed by Walker Buehler. Pitching wasn’t the issue in this game, but finding any source of meaningful offense was.

  • Joe Ross: five innings, two hits, two walks, no runs, four strikeouts, 67 pitches (40 strikes)
  • Luis Avilan: one inning, solo home run, two strikeouts, 17 pitches (10 strikes)
  • Wander Suero: one inning, one base runner (double), 11 pitches (seven strikes)
  • Sam Clay: one inning, no base runners, nine pitches (six strikes)

No one pitched particularly poorly, but it’s completely fair to wonder why Ross was removed from the game after five innings. The obvious answer – whether it’s sufficient or not – is twofold; his spot in the lineup was due up in the top of the sixth, and he hadn’t thrown more than 73 pitches in an outing this spring, after sitting out the entire 2020 season.

At some point, Ross has to be allowed to go deeper into games and face a lineup for the third time – something Martinez is notoriously weary of doing with his back of the rotation starters. Friday’s game was the perfect opportunity to stretch him to his limits, but Davey refused to do it, and the team paid for it when Avilan gave up a homer to Justin Turner the following inning.

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Apr
07

Nats Have Their Moments, But Lose 2 Of 3 To Braves

For six months and a couple of extra days, Nats fans waited.

Then in a span of a little over 24 hours, they went from famine to feast, as the Nationals played three games, showing both the potential - and challenges - they'll have to deal with this season.  

The good: The Nats took the season opener on a walk-off base hit by Juan Soto.

The bad: They dropped both games of a doubleheader on Wednesday.

 Game One

Max Scherzer was not at his best on Tuesday. He surrendered four solo home runs in his first three innings, including two to Ronald Acuña Jr. Thankfully, the Nats’ bats picked up his slack.  Recently signed catcher Jonathan Lucroy laced a two-run double down the third base line in the second inning, and Trea Turner crushed a ball over the left-center field fence in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game.

Despite his early struggles, Scherzer managed to get through six innings while limiting the damage to four runs and striking out nine batters. That kept Washington in the game, and the bullpen fared better.

The Braves added a run on an Acuña groundout in the seventh, with Kyle Finnegan on the mound. But Andrew Stevenson responded with a bases-loaded RBI single the next inning.

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Apr
06

Nats' Opener: It Was Real. And It Was Spectacular.

Man, that felt normal.

Tuesday’s season-opening 6-5 win over the Atlanta Braves wasn’t so much about the dramatic walk-off RBI by Juan Soto – although that didn’t hurt at all – but was more about how it didn’t feel a single bit like those 60 games last season.

In comparison, those contests were plastic. Today was fine Corinthian leather. Last year felt like spring training games that didn’t count, while today – from the minute Max Scherzer gave up the first of four solo home runs – it felt real. There was a tension, an excitement, a feeling that whatever happened today counted.

Most of it was having live fans in the stands, as you can tell yourself piped-in crowd noise is almost as good as the real thing until the cows come home. But it’s not until you hear the murmuring and crescendos of sound made by living, caring human beings, sitting in a stadium eating overpriced food and beverage, that you realize the difference.

The vibe extended to everyone. You could hear it in the voices of Bob Carpenter, FP Santangelo and Dan Kolko as they broadcast the game. They were as excited as we were, like kids opening their Christmas presents a few days late, but still just as giddy when Trea Turner hit a two-run homer to tie the game at 4-4.

For the first time since the World Series of 2019, you could also feel the rivalry. Last year each game was between two teams respecting each other’s social distance, worried more about both teams leaving the field as healthy as they entered. Today, that old feeling of “I really don’t like these guys” made a comeback, and it added an intensity that led grown men to moan “C’mon Suero, don’t throw the ball down the middle like that again” in the privacy of their own homes.

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Apr
04

Nationals Start Season Tuesday, Doubleheader Wednesday

The Washington Nationals finally added some clarity to when their season would begin Sunday by announcing that Monday's game with the Atlanta Braves will be postponed, but barring any further developments, the Nationals will be starting their season Tuesday at home against the Braves.

The Nationals released an official statement Sunday night saying the most recent round of test results of Nationals personnel included no new positives, and that all of the club's eligible personnel will be able to participate in baseball activities at Nationals Park on Monday. 

UPDATE: Nats announced today that game time Tuesday would be 4:05 PM, and that they will play a doubleheader of 7-inning games on Wednesday starting at 12:05 PM. 

 

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Apr
04

Nationals Sign Lucroy, Reveal Covid-Affected Players

While the COVID-19 situation has been quite complex for the Nationals over the last few days, it would appear some of the questions fans have been asking now have answers.

We’ve known for a while that four players’ rapid/PCR tests returned positive results, with numerous other players ruled to be high-risk close contacts. But now we know specifically who some of the most affected players were.

Per reports, the Nationals expect to be without left-handed pitcher Jon Lester, catcher Alex Avila, infielder Josh Harrison and outfielder Kyle Schwarber when the season begins. It’s also possible that more players will join the list of inactives.

While Sam Clay, Luis Garcia and Yadiel Hernandez will likely remain with the team after being tentatively recalled on Wednesday, catcher Tres Barrera may not. Washington signed Jonathan Lucroy, a two-time All Star (2014 and 2016), to a minor-league contract, and the belief is that he’ll be promoted to the majors upon joining the team.

Lucroy’s case is an interesting one. Any player designated as COVID-19 affected – either due to a positive test or close contact – can be placed on a separate COVID-19 related IL, removing them from the active and 40-man rosters and allowing them to be replaced by a minor-league player. However, unlike last season, the replacement doesn’t have to be placed through waivers when the COVID-19 designee returns and the replacement is taken off the roster.

In other words, Lucroy can be temporarily utilized as a fill-in for Avila, and then returned to the minor leagues and retained by the organization upon Avila’s return. In essence, there is no downside to using a veteran like Lucroy, especially if Barrera isn’t viewed as big-league ready – which appears to be the case.

Lucroy’s role – assuming he earns a promotion and Avila is deactivated – will be dependent upon the availability of Yan Gomes. Lucroy has never caught any of the Nationals’ starting pitchers, though, which would likely limit his usage.

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